A few years ago, I asked the young American soul singer Leon Bridges — a latter-day Sam Cooke, with the old-fashioned song arrangements to match — if he ever pondered the incongruity of being a black man, backed by a white band, playing music in the African-American tradition to audiences that (in the UK at least) were almost entirely white. ‘I have a song called “Brown Skin Girl”,’ he replied, ‘and I ask “Where my brown-skinned girls at?” And there’s maybe one or two in the crowd. It’s a little awkward sometimes.’
His words came to mind watching Adia Victoria. Despite her being an African-American woman signed to a major label — her brilliant album Silences came out on Atlantic earlier this year — the audience in the upstairs room of a London pub was almost entirely white. Like Bridges, she draws on older traditions. She plays a version of the blues that borrows thematically, rather than musically. Racial and sexual oppression in the South, where she grew up and still lives, run through her songs like bindweed intertwining with ivy.
That makes her sound like a sociology lecturer, which does her a grave disservice. Despite the slightly deadening nature of playing to a half-empty room, she turned up the charm and the charisma at the Lexington. She goes against stereotypes of what the blues might mean: her voice, though true and perfectly pitched, is breathy and slight rather than a huge roar, more Billie Holliday than Bessie Smith; the music borrows as much from indie rock as from Robert Johnson. For this show, she didn’t have the full band that made Silences such a thrill, just a keyboard player and another guitarist alongside her; she provided the rhythm — the donkey work — the other chap added squalls and jags and windblown echoes. When she fell back on to a pretty conventional guitar pattern in ‘Mexico Blues’, her vocal melody spiralled far from the places one might have expected it to end up.
The greater dynamic range of her full band would have offered more light and shade to the songs — ‘Heathen’, for one, missed the sensuous charge of the extra instrumentation. But this was an intimate gig that showed Victoria to be a remarkable talent.
No problems with attendance for the British rapper Loyle Carner, who packed out Ally Pally on a rainy Friday night. Like Adia Victoria, he’s interested in blackness. He was brought up by his white mother (to whom large chunks of his set were dedicated) and stepfather after his biological father left, and introduced ‘Looking Back’ by speaking about how he had lived much of his youth understanding the white part of him but not the black. Then, when his dad finally explained his heritage, he misheard and believed his dad was from Ghana rather than Guyana. The song itself offered the existentialist dilemma of wondering too hard about a biracial heritage: ‘I’m thinking that my great grandfather could’ve owned my other one.’
He’s an amiable chap. Unlike Slowthai, recently reviewed on these pages, you’d be wholly unconcerned if your kids were hanging around with him (he’s got one track named for Yotam Ottolenghi, rarely a sign of antisocial leanings), because he radiated niceness and earnestness. But the niceness and earnestness became a little wearing, especially when set against a musical backing that, like golden age hip hop, leaned heavily on early 1970s soul and funk. What was new and dynamic and thrilling 30 or more years ago — you could hear pop being reinvented on those old hip hop records — felt polite now. It was, like Carner himself, nice.
It’s not that niceness is anything to be sneered at. Nor should a rapper have to be violently confrontational, or obsessed with proving their gang credentials. It’s more that with British hip hop experiencing its own golden age — AJ Tracey, Stormzy, Skepta, Little Simz and more making assertive, powerful tracks with a distinctly British identity — this kind of didactic rap suddenly feels a little old-fashioned. I liked him a great deal; I liked his music a little less. It was his show, rather than Adia Victoria’s, that felt like the sociology lecture.